Dr. Richard Lally: GMOs, CRISPR and nutrigenomics: A new crop of solutions?
The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Dr. Richard Lally. Click below to hear the full audio:
Tom: How can we communicate scientific discovery in such a way that we foster consumer understanding, excitement and even hope? Joining us to shed some light on these discussions is Dr. Richard Lally, a postdoctoral researcher currently working on a variety of Alltech Crop Science projects. Thank you for being with us, Dr. Lally.
Richard: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Tom: Let's dig in to the question. Talk to us a little bit about these emerging technologies in your field. Let's begin with CRISPR, an exciting one.
Richard: Yes. There's a lot of excitement surrounding CRISPR at the moment. CRISPR is this, I suppose, emerging technology. The first paper was published describing the mechanism in 2012. Since then, there's been just an explosion in its use in all forms of gene modification, gene editing. It's really a revolutionary technology, and it's going to change the way we do medicine, it's going to change the way we do research, and it's going to change what we do in agriculture.
Tom: I imagine many people are confused about CRISPR and GMO and what's the difference. Can you differentiate them for us?
Richard: Yes. There are more applications for CRISPR than just the conventional genetic modification that we would traditionally associate with the GMO-produced genetic alterations. CRISPR can do a variety of things that the traditional methods couldn't achieve. Some of these things include directly editing a genome in a very precise way, down to the deletion of mutations that can cause diseases.
Tom: For example, we have the case of citrus greening in Florida, which is a susceptibility, I suppose, that's built into the citrus. Is it possible to apply CRISPR to citrus in a way that would prevent that in the future?
Richard: Absolutely. I think in terms of research, in particular, CRISPR is going to bring on a lot of knowledge surrounding disease and biochemical mechanisms within crops and plants. Citrus greening is a particularly problematic disease — probably the worst disease that has ever hit citrus. As a result, production is down about 70 percent in Florida. The ability to edit the genome by removing a gene or changing base pairs in a gene is going to really speed up how we investigate the disease. It's really going to bring us forward. It's going to advance us years in comparison to the traditional mechanism that we have been able to use.
Tom: There's been a study for the National Institutes of Health that found that those who are more unfamiliar with GMOs tend to be more resistant to the technology, while those with higher scientific knowledge tend to have more positive attitudes about GMOs. Is there a disconnect between consumer GMO familiarity and scientific understanding, do you think?
Richard: I think there is. My opinion of it is, I suppose, would be that I don't see any flaws in the use of GMOs. I think that, for a growing global population, it's definitely something we're going to have to incorporate into the food chain. Using CRISPR as well, we'll have to do that. But I think a lot of the initial disconnect between the actual technology and the fear surrounding it probably came from the commercial benefits that some of the larger producers of these technologies — that they were benefitting, and there was not necessarily a benefit being translated throughout the food chain. So, I think consumers are probably more opposed to these technologies as a result of, probably, miscommunication. GMOs have been used now for, say, 40 years plus. To date, there's been absolutely no association and no evidence that they're harmful in any way to humans and for consumption.
Tom: Genetic engineering has faced regulatory limits and even sort of a Frankenfood reputation, even though there have not been any cases of any problems, because it introduces genes of one species into another. Do you anticipate that CRISPR might run into the same sort of backlash?
Richard: I do, and I don't. I suppose CRISPR can do many things that we couldn't achieve in the past. With CRISPR technology, we actually have the ability to change a genome without adding in any foreign DNA — let's put it that way — from another species. You can replace a gene in a plant or in an organism, and you can also do single mutations of nucleotides within a genome. It's those applications that are going to really change how people perceive this technology because, in some cases, you're not actually going to be changing the genome of an organism; you're going to be maybe modifying it slightly.
Tom: I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there is enormous excitement around the development of CRISPR technology. Many experts in the field say that it is capable of saving the planet from starvation. Is that an overstatement, or do you agree?
Richard: I don't think it's an overstatement. I think it's really going to bring on our knowledge of food production. If we can make changes in the genetics of plants by this gene-editing technique, really, your imagination is the limit to what you can do. If there is a trace in a plant that prevents it growing, say, two foot taller, if we could change one nucleotide in that trace or remove that trace, that could help us boost the production of certain crops. This will help us, in the future, provide more food to the world.
Tom: Okay. Let's change the subject just a little bit, over to another field that I know you're interested in: nutrigenomics. This is also a big Alltech field, the study of how nutrition naturally influences gene expression. How does that play in public perception? Have you come up against public perceptions about nutrigenomics? Is it understood?
Richard: Yes, nutrigenomics is essentially the study of the influence of nutrients on gene performance. Sometimes you get a question of, "Well, is this GMO? Is this editing?" et cetera, et cetera, and it's very quickly clarified that it's not. Nutrigenomics is literally transcriptomics; it's the study of gene expression. What we typically do is we take a material or a product and we look at how it influences a plant's response, or, in our animal science, we look at how it influences the genetic response of animal genetics. In our crop science, now, we're studying nutrigenomics as a way of helping alleviate diseases, helping boost the performance of crops and helping understand more about some of the problems that drought, flooding, various environmental stresses are putting on agronomic systems.
Tom: So, by using this tool, the producer can fine-tune feeds or fertilizer, whatever it is, being given to the plant or the animal to have a desired result?
Richard: Absolutely. I suppose the way we usually summarize it is that we look at the genetic potential of a particular organism. Let's say we're looking at carrots. The carrot, in its normal agronomic environment, is going to be subjected to many stresses. Some of these stresses include drought; it could be overload of fertilizer; it could be disease. What we aim to do with our technology, with our transcriptomic capabilities, is assess the genetic performance of that carrot, in this case, and see what we can do to help bring optimal performance to those genetic mechanisms that help bring it back up, to help recover that yield for a producer.
Tom: Okay. Earlier, we talked on citrus greening, which has hit Florida pretty hard. Another one that I know that you have touched on is black sigatoka, which has been plaguing banana producers in Costa Rica. If you could first describe what that disease is and the implications for producers.
Richard: Yes. Black sigatoka is a problematic fungal disease. Because bananas are monocultures as well, they're farmed using asexual means. They tend to be genetically bottlenecked. They don't have a diverse kind of crossbred genetic repertoire to help them adapt very quickly to diseases. Diseases like black sigatoka are particularly problematic for banana-producing regions. So, black sigatoka, as I mentioned, is a fungal disease. It infects the leaf tissue of bananas and eventually makes its way to the rest of the plant. If it's untreated or uncontrolled, essentially, what happens is it can wipe out hectares of bananas, in a severe instance of that particular disease pressure.
Tom: The approach to fighting it has been to apply lots of chemicals, perhaps several times each month, at a pretty high cost to producers. Are you investigating natural alternatives to chemicals?
Richard: We have a team currently working in Costa Rica: Patrick Becker and Kyle Mckinney. They’ve been introducing a program using some of our agri-solutions. They've been swapping out fungal pesticides with one of our products.
What they have found is that they're able to maintain plant growth with reduced pesticide application. In some cases, this can be reported to be up to a 20–30 percent reduction. We're currently working on pushing it past that. So, I started working with Kyle and Patrick in the last six months or so, and what we are attempting to do now is to look at what underlying mechanisms the plant is utilizing to help it battle back against the black sigatoka. We were tasked, as well, last year by Dr. Pearse Lyons to build a banana [gene] chip, which we've done within our research department. This gene chip can help us assess the activity of the banana genome under the treatment of our applications.
Tom: As a scientist, how can we communicate scientific discovery in a way that fosters consumer understanding? We talked about that disconnect earlier and, again, even excitement and hope.
Richard: It's such an exciting area. These technologies, whether we like to admit it or not, are already here; they're already being produced. Gene-edited crops are going to be rolled out across the world. Some of the other technologies, they're going to do incredible things for agriculture and for food production.
We think probably the biggest downfall for scientists is they're very insulated — they're stuck in their own bubble, in their own worlds — and how should I say it? We tend to dissect all of our own information and share it amongst ourselves. When we do share it, we probably make the mistake of overcomplicating the information.
So, I think the main thing scientists could do to try and bring further knowledge to the public surrounding these applications is address them in a friendly manner, in a non-technical manner, and break it down in the simplest form. That's not to say people are stupid or anything; it's just that the technical understanding might not be there. But to slowly break down the different aspects of these technologies and just show them that there is no real risk to these things — and any of the risks that people have, we can assess them, and we can show that they're not true issues to worry about.
Tom: Before we close, I'd like to touch on something interesting about you, Dr. Lally. I understand that you joined Alltech through the Alltech Young Scientist program after winning the event's global prize in 2016. Correct? Two questions for you: What was your work that was recognized by the award of this prize, and what's your message to next crop of Alltech Young Scientists?
Richard: Thanks very much, Tom, for those questions. I joined Alltech following the Young Scientist competition. It was my first time in the United States. Actually, I came to Kentucky as a finalist for the global competition. At the time, I was studying in the Institute of Technology Carlow. I was looking at a group of microorganisms called plant growth promoting bacteria. The particular isolates I was working with were Pseudomonas fluorescens. These organisms, they exist naturally in nature. They co-evolved with plants over millennia. The organisms have the ability to do wonderful things to help benefit plants the same way that the human growth or the animal growth organisms would symbiotically benefit from one another.
So, my project was looking at the application of these microorganisms in agronomic settings. We did some work with comparative genomics, and we looked to some of the traits that these microorganisms used to help promote plant growth. I suppose, fundamentally, these organisms in these applications have the ability — or definitely have the potential — to reduce the agricultural import of synthetic chemical fertilizers, which we would hope would help reduce the environmental impact of crop agriculture.
Tom: And your message to young scientists?
Richard: I suppose, to the young scientists this year — I had the pleasure of meeting them all just yesterday — be clear, present the data, back up the data with further evidence and tell some kind of story. Make your message interesting. Again, it's all about that communication to the wider audience, how can you get that technical information across without confusing everybody in the room.
Tom: Dr. Richard Lally, thank you so much for your time.
Richard: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.